A Little Soul Searching

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photo © Natalie Zhou of Nana Floral

You may have noticed that there have been six months of silence around these parts.

I took a vacation.

I needed a break from self-imposed deadlines, from taking more pictures of plates than of gap-toothed smiles, from the chore of writing about everything I cook and never cooking the same thing more than twice.

The truth is, blogging is quite a lot of work. That’s why most people who do it successfully consider it to be their job! I do not really consider myself “successful” at this “job” because I have another career that is pretty consuming: mom-ing. In order to live up to that calling well, I have long sacrificed large parts of the blogger job description, parts like posting on social media and following friends faithfully in order to grow my audience here.

But last Fall, I realized that I wasn’t doing my mom job particularly well, either. Every time I sat down to do something on my computer, my scope of attention shrank to a small, glowing rectangle 12” from my face, and my patience with children’s shenanigans and demands disappeared entirely.

Around that time, I started asking myself some hard questions. Questions like: why have I been spending so much time thinking about food, trying new dishes, and taking pictures of everything I eat? Why do I like writing about food? What do I hope to offer or gain by doing this? Is writing a food blog the best use of my time as a mother of two preschoolers (and do I even enjoy it)?

The truth is, I found myself longing for the freedom to throw myself into other projects and ignore what’s for dinner.

IMG_7766I needed to simplify. I needed to find a lighter balance. I needed to blink and look away from Pinterest, Facebook, Tastespotting, and everything else. I needed to spend time with my gap-toothed smilers. You know. The ones who absolutely refuse to stand still next to each other for a two-second photo. #alwaysblurry

I spent a lot of time worrying about whether I should take a break from blogging, even though I knew I really needed to reorganize my priorities. But while I was fretting, before I knew it, a month had passed. And then two.

And I have to tell you, what started as a break from having my attention constantly divided turned into so much more.

Spoiler (in case you haven’t figured this out yet…): This is definitely a long-winded, reflective post. And there will not be a recipe at the end. I am so glad to have someplace to collect my thoughts, but I will not be offended if you decide to abandon this post, and just wait to see if it takes me another six months to show up again.

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Soft Pretzels

Soft Pretzels

The end of an era has arrived: this month marks the last Secret Recipe Club exchange, ever.

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about this. I have been part of this group since I was pregnant with Jake (who just turned 4!) so the SRC has influenced a lot of my cooking and baking throughout the years. Forty-two recipes on this blog happened because of the SRC. When I joined, it was with the idealistic hope that I would make friends with like-minded bloggers and find some delicious, well-curated recipes to add to my repertoire. What I found was that my preferences and standards were quite different from most of the rest of the group. I’m sure I haven’t been alone in struggling to find that single recipe from an assigned blog that fits into my own tastes and cooking style.

The challenge of the SRC exchange was often truly a challenge, and honestly, not always something I felt excited or joyful about. But I have grown as a cook and baker because of it! Because of the SRC, I have learned to look for something good in unexpected places. I have cooked some dishes I might not otherwise have tried. I have grown in testing new recipes and tweaking them to work better, or to work better for me. I have also grown as a blogger in taking my posts more seriously and making sure I am proud of what I write about.

This month, the last month of the Secret Recipe Club, I am working from the blog I’m Hungry, written by Traci. Her great strength is semi-homemade foods: if you are looking for ways to get food on the table quickly and easily, she is your gal. I was originally looking for a good Thanksgiving side dish, since it is November, but I ended up settling on soft pretzels, something I’ve been planning to bake for almost as many years as I’ve been part of SRC.

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Candyland Birthday Party

Jake and Cake

My crazy little man is 4 years old!

Jake definitely gave me a run for my money this year. He is rambunctious and giddy and willful and very invested in understanding every single thing.

This year we celebrated Jake’s birthday in the most fitting way I could imagine: with a mountain of candy and a giant board game. Jake’s sweet tooth rivals mine, and he has spent the last year in a quest to become a board game geek like his daddy. (It should be noted here that his favorite game is called Just Desserts, which is a game where you feed pretend customers all their favorite sugary treats, and that when we play Candyland, he cherishes the pink dessert cards so much that I have a hard time convincing him to keep them in the stack.)

Happy fourth birthday, Jake! I can’t believe how big you are, and I can’t wait to see how you grow over the next year!

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Smoky Sweet Potato, Black Bean, and Spinach Empanadas

Smoky Sweet Potato and Black Bean Empanadas

A few weeks ago, I told Sarah of Well Dined that all I wanted to do this Fall is bake, bake, bake, and I wondered whether she would mind eating nothing but cookies for lunch when we got together. She thoughtfully responded that we should make empanadas.

And after we made these, we congratulated ourselves over and over again because the filling is so delicious. I mean seriously, we were both sneaking spoonfuls of filling as we assembled the empanadas, and licking our fingers when we were done. It’s amazing.

You should make yourself a batch of empanadas right away, so you will know what I’m talking about!

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Drunken Pumpkin Bundt Cake

Drunken Pumpkin Bundt Cake

About a year ago, a good friend of ours left a bottle of spiced rum at our house, as a gift.

To be honest, neither of us are big cocktail drinkers. And so, the bottle of rum has gathered dust in the cabinet.

But then, as part of the Secret Recipe Club challenge for October, I stumbled across a pumpkin recipe I knew I had to try: drunken pumpkin cake. (At last, the spiced rum will have its day!)

You know I love baking with liquor. And you know I love anything to do with pumpkin.

This month for SRC, I was assigned Little Bit of Everything, written by Julie. Julie has been blogging since 2009, and she started her blog as a way to document her journey through her cookbook collection! I love how she keeps a list of the daring recipes she wants to try, because I do the same thing!

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Maple Nutmeg Butter Cookies

Maple Nutmeg Butter Cookies

Now that it’s Fall, I am going to be all about the baking.

And what do we think of when we think of Fall? (No…it’s not just pumpkin.)

Leaves! Leaves turning orange and red and dripping from the trees and crunching underfoot. I think maple should feature as prominently in our Fall lineup as all the pumpkin and warm spices we normally expect at every turn.

And these cookies, sweet with sappy maple syrup and spiced with nutmeg, are the perfect bite of Fall.

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Rhubarb Vanilla Jam

We recently spent two weeks in Ireland.

Ruins at InisoirrIreland is gorgeous, in case you were wondering. Wildflowers are absolutely everywhere, peeking through the cracks in ancient stone walls and clumping along the sides of the roads. There are rock-bordered, green fields for miles, thanks to the soft, misty rain that falls almost every day.

Ring of KerryWe loved exploring traditional Irish farms and learning about the simplicity and resourcefulness of country life 100 years ago. We loved trying to pronounce the Irish language signs posted all around. We loved that a typical playground in Ireland has ziplines for kids and exercise equipment for parents. We loved the stunning, hazy mountains and cliffs that loomed over the Atlantic ocean. And don’t even get me started on how cool it is to find crumbling stone ruins everywhere you look.

The Best PhotoTraveling with two preschoolers was basically the worst, and that’s all I’ll say about that. (Check out my oldest throwing a tantrum instead of looking at the camera. This is literally the best family photo from the whole trip. Just so you get a clear idea. I’m not exaggerating.) But if you are ever going to travel abroad with preschoolers, you should definitely do it in Ireland, because the people there are so kind and understanding and friendly. They actually love kids. And they do not give you irritated, patronizing looks when yours are screaming and losing their minds in public places.

Rhubarb Vanilla JamAnother great thing about Irish people is that they are unflinchingly generous. For example, when we were staying in Killarney, they served this rhubarb jam with breakfast, and Dave basically ate a pint of it over four days. (He must have genetically inherited his love of rhubarb, because rhubarb desserts were on almost every menu and in every bakery in Ireland. He tried all of them.) When I asked for the recipe, the kind proprietors of the inn immediately wrote down a copy for me!

So here we are. Thank you, Ireland, for your kindness and generosity, and thank you for the rhubarb jam.

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Roasted Red Pepper Alfredo

Roasted Red Pepper Alfredo

If you’ve been hanging out here for a while, then you already know how dearly I love Sarah of Well Dined.

She is one of my favorite people on the planet! Sarah has been unspeakably kind and generous to me in the seven years (!) we’ve known each other. She is thoughtful, thought-provoking, and hilarious. She is bold—and I don’t just mean her hair—and she pursues life fully. I am grateful to Sarah for stretching me as a cook, for her encouragement and patience through all of my motherhood woes, and for being the best friend a girl could ask for.

Which is why I am so excited to be cooking from Well Dined for the September Secret Recipe Club challenge!

Months ago, when Sarah joined the SRC, I mentally earmarked this spinach and gruyère strata to make whenever I got assigned to cook from her blog. But…surprise! During one of our subsequent lunches, she mentioned this amazing caramelized French toast she makes, and I knew my life would not be complete without it, so I decided to make that instead. And then, when the assignment actually happened, I got so excited about making some kind of ravioli, which Sarah makes all the time—and we talk about endlessly—that I threw out all my breakfast plans entirely. This somehow turned into the joy of hiding vegetables inside of pasta sauce.

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S’Mores Chocolate Chip Cookies

S'Mores Chocolate Chip Cookies

My son loves to make up creative desserts.

A few weeks ago, I told him I like cookie dough ice cream, and he responded that he was making me a “super delicious” cookie dough out of salt, pepper, baking soda, and sugar.

He may need to grow a little in his understanding of baking chemistry.

But he still has some seriously good ideas! Like s’mores cookies. Which were totally scrumptious, and totally his idea.

These cookies are so great. Stretchy, sweet marshmallows, mild graham flavor, and milk chocolate. Summer will thank you.

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